The best way of describing Brutal Legend, by Double Fine, is as a love letter to metal. Some form of metal music is playing at almost any given point in the game, including the menus - if you hate metal with all your heart, consider this fair warning. When the chords do fall silent for a few seconds, even then there tends to be something intrinsically "metal" in sight, like a guitar-wielding statue, or a character splitting a hellbeast in two.
The game is designed by Tim Schafer, who PC gamers will remember for adventures like Full Throttle, and console owners will know for Psychonauts. Brutal Legend plays like neither though, and in some ways defies easy pigeonholing.
In the single-player mode players assume the role of Eddie Riggs, a roadie transported to the most metal universe imaginable. In seconds he is not only wielding an axe against an army of cultists, but literally electrifying them with the power of his rocking. On a basic level, this is how much of the game is played - slicing through hordes of enemies, while using the guitar as a ranged weapon.
Players can chain attacks together, in some cases triggering handy push-back and pyrotechnic effects. More poweful still are the guitar solos, which are learned through exploration and require a quick Guitar Hero-like minigame to execute. In combat the impact of solos can range widely, from melting enemies' faces off to crashing down a flaming zeppelin.
Solos are not limited to fighting purposes; this brings us to one of the most distinguishing aspects of the game, the open world. While not quite offering the active sandbox of something like Grand Theft Auto, Brutal Legend does have expansive terrain that can be traveled using the Druid Plow, a car summoned at almost any time with a solo. A minor complaint in this regard is the lack of a compass or minimap, which can sometimes leave you disoriented until you check the static map, or spot a waypoint beam.
Story progress is made by completing a series of core missions, ultimately leading players through most of the world's diverse environments, while simultaneously introducing key concepts. Players are on the other hand encouraged to go roaming early on - new solos can only be earned by reading Tab Slabs, and some bonuses can only be accrued by locating and freeing artifacts, like the Bound Serpents.
The biggest reason to deviate, theoretically, is side missions. These not only extend the game by several hours, but also help you to earn Fire Tributes, which can be spent at a Motor Forge to upgrade the Druid Plow and Eddie's personal abilities. It can become impossible to progress without some upgrades, so it easily pays to do as many side missions as possible before carrying on with the story.
I say theoretically because the side missions can be somewhat divisive. I've enjoyed everything I've played, but I'll be the first to admit that they tend to be generic - with few exceptions, they can be classified as either ambushes, races or turret missions. Races are often the most exciting, thanks to a flexible waypoint system that ensures you never get lost. The "death rack" turret missions are little better than distractions though, and the appeal of ambushes depends entirely on how much you like the game's combat.
The most controversial aspect of Brutal Legend has to be its real-time strategy elements. Although Double Fine has never made a secret of them, they're nowhere to be found in the pre-release demo, so they're sure to catch a number of people by surprise.
In the beginning these are limited to basic squad commands: rally, move, attack, defend and double-team. Troops like headbangers and Razor Girls mostly come into play as a part of missions, but can also be found wandering the landscape. The game gradually adds more unit types to your arsenal, and at a certain point gives you an aerial view from which complete battles can be controlled. Where the goal isn't straight conquest, players are tasked with capturing fan geysers, Brutal Legend's one resource. Fans in turn flock to stages, which generate troops and serve as a last-ditch defense.
Making things tricky is the need to get personally involved in fights. Even if you have superiority in numbers, you still have to drop down to play solos, whether to capture a geyser or set a rally point. Joining the fray can also increase the chances that you'll win, and it might as well be mandatory if an enemy commander is present. Players can never really immerse themselves in the strategy as a result, though a bit of thinking does make a difference.
This gameplay is likely to turn off some people, who may feel - not without merit - that Brutal Legend is at its peak when it's just about destruction. My own view is that it adds some much-needed variety to the later missions, and there's inherent comedy in watching a legion of headbangers bash a horde of goths to death. Or vice versa.
Strategy is the exclusive focus of the title's multiplayer mode. Gamers play against human or AI opponents in team-based skirmishes, with up to eight players divided between two teams. Here people have the option of choosing from more than just Eddie's Ironheade army; also available are the Drowning Doom and the Tainted Coil, with their own distinctive play styles. The Tainted Coil are particularly noteworthy, since their units are built not using a stage, but through hiearchy units on the battlefield.
To be honest though, I don't see multiplayer having much life beyond the game's first few months. The matchmaking system makes it difficult to find players that aren't already friends, and the learning curve is very steep indeed. I was able to trounce story battles without much trouble, but I found myself being obliterated in minutes in multiplayer - and this is from someone who's been playing RTS games since they were invented. In balance terms, it can be extremely easy to rush an enemy.
The gods made heavy metal
What really sets Brutal Legend apart is the total devotion to its concept. Schafer clearly knows his metal, and every aspect of the game shows it. Many setpieces, characters and landmarks in the game seem ripped straight from classic album jackets. The plot summons up common metal themes, and while it pokes fun at a lot of them, there's always a hidden respect. Except when it comes to hair metal perhaps, which is savaged pretty ruthlessly.
One thing PC gamers will recognize is Schafer's trademark sense of humor. The game is genuinely funny in a way that most comedic games fail to be, all the more so because it's written with many subtle references. Comedy is always better when it assumes your intelligence, as it does in this case. Other developers should be taking notes.
Several characters in the game are meanwhile voiced by famous musicians, like Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford, Rob Halford and Lemmy Kilmister. Jack Black handles the voice of Eddie, and was practically born for the role. The soundtrack includes a whopping 108 songs, representing everything from classic bands like Black Sabbath and Motörhead through to artists like Emperor, Slayer and Ministry. Suffice it to say that if you like metal, it will take eons for boredom to set in.
Brutal Legend is at least a must-have for metalheads, as you've probably gathered. Followers of Schafer will probably be the next in line to pick it up, although there are virtually no puzzle elements to speak of, unlike his previous games. The real question is whether everyone else will take an interest. The game is certainly worth renting for a weekend, as the single-player campaign lasts a minimum of seven to 10 hours on a modest difficulty setting. A full purchase may depend on just how much the subject grabs you, and whether you can find friends to play online. In any case, the game is very promising for Double Fine's future.